Language is one of the most complex phenomena in the universe, and yet we encounter it every single day of our lives in a way that many of us take for granted. Fortunately, you can learn to speak a language without learning all the details of how it works — and to be honest, we don’t have a full grasp of that anyway. But finding out more about how language works can teach you a lot: about human nature, about the brain, about history and more. Reading linguistics books is a great way to dive deeper into the world of the word.
Good news for you: There are countless options out there. We rounded up some of the best linguistics books we’ve read that cover a wide range of topics. Whether you’re into history, science or fantasy, there’s a compendium about communication or a book about babble out there for you.
For A Good Overview: Don’t Believe A Word By David Shariatmadari
Everyone uses language, and so it makes sense that everyone has some preconceived notions about how it works. But in Don’t Believe a Word, linguist David Shariatmadari looks at nine common myths and the truth hiding behind them. On the way, he covers the most up-to-date language science in an accessible way (the book came out in 2020, so it’s one of the newest there is). Shariatmadari also uses a number of real-world examples to show you how the mechanisms of language play out in our lives every time we open our mouths.
For Learning About English History: The Stories Of English By David Crystal
English is a complicated language. From its humble origins in Proto-Germanic to its worldwide status as a lingua franca today, English can’t really be boiled down into a simple narrative. That’s why this book isn’t the story of English but The Stories of English; it looks at history in all its multifaceted glory (and also some parts that are not so glorious). David Crystal, the author of this book, is also hugely prolific on the topic of language, and in particular English. If you like his writing style, you can learn a lot more about language by checking out his bibliography (his Little Book of Language also makes a good introductory text).
For Learning About Other Languages’ History: Babel By Gaston Dorren
There are over 7,000 languages in the world, but the size of each varies drastically. In fact, Gaston Dorren calculated that if you wanted to be able to communicate with about half of the world’s population, you’d need to master just 20. In Babel, Dorren looks at each of these 20 languages — which come from all over the world — and the stories behind them. While there’s only so much detail he can go into in a single chapter per language, the book is jam-packed with information, and it gives you a good survey of how different languages can be.
For The Origins Of Language: The First Word By Christine Kenneally
There is a first time for everything, which means that there must have been — at some point in history — a first word. In The First Word, linguist and journalist Christine Kenneally looks at a “new” field in linguistics that studies the origins of human language. She interviews a number of linguists who have done research on this topic and discusses some of the most fascinating studies. The result of the book is that there are a number of theories as to how language first came about. But if you’re looking for an actual “first word” you are likely out of luck. It’s more about the journey than the destination, anyway.
For The Intersection Of Language And Gender: Wordslut By Amanda Montell
As you can probably guess from the title being Wordslut, this is not your father’s linguistics book. It’s a radical but research-intensive look at how language and gender interact. Do women actually talk more than men? Why do people get so annoyed by vocal fry? Why do so many words that refer to women also happen to be horrific insults? Montell interviews experts in gendered linguistics to write this diatribe against sexism in language.
These are the best linguistic books to read for knowledge.